"Game of Thrones" is back for a second season. I posted my advance review on Thursday, and I have specific thoughts on the season premiere coming up just as soon as we trade gossip like a couple of fishwives...
"There's a king in every corner now." -Catelyn
The first season of "Game of Thrones" was pretty fantastic, but it also was something of a slow build. Benioff and Weiss had to establish the world of Westeros and all the major players from the first book — and, of course, they were largely working off of the structure laid down by George R.R. Martin. Like many of the great HBO dramas, it picked up a tremendous amount of momentum as it went along, but there was a lot of exposition (and sexposition) in the early going.
Season two, on the other hand, dives right into things. We're going to be dealing with a clash of kings, to borrow the title of book two, and so first we get a reminder of just what a sadistic little monster the current king is. And within minutes, Tyrion Lannister has swaggered his way into King's Landing, has summed up the events and quality of the first season in pithy fashion — "So many adventures. So much to be thankful for." — and begun causing all manner of trouble for his nephew, his sister, and the rest of the court.
Peter Dinklage is, unsurprisingly, tremendous, taking to his expanded role just as easily as Tyrion takes to navigating the halls of power. He's dashing when he needs to be (his initial entrances into both the royal courtyard and then the Small Council meeting), tender at others (apologizing to Sansa for her father's murder, in no doubt the first kindness the girl has heard from a Lannister in some time) and, as usual, tremendously funny throughout ("... that, and your cheekbones"). If Dinklage doesn't repeat his Emmy win for supporting actor this year, it'll only be because he's been deservingly elevated to the lead category this time around.
And once Tyrion gets settled into the new gig, Benioff, Weiss and director Alan Taylor confidently take us on a tour of all the relevant places and characters, all linked together by the comet streaking across the sky. The climate and problems being experienced by Bran and Dany(*) are very different, but there's still that red streak in the sky connecting them, Jon Snow and everyone else. Many conflicts, one world.
(*) Once again, I'm not going to bother to attempt getting her name right this year. Nicknames now, nicknames forever!
So we get to catch up with familiar characters: Bran trying to run Winterfell, Dany trying to keep her people's spirits alive in the merciless environment of the Red Waste, and Jon Snow struggling to understand the culture and politics of the wildlings. But we also spend a good amount of time in a new locale (Dragonstone) and with an all-new set of characters: Stannis Baratheon, eldest surviving brother of Robert, whom Ned tried to install as king late last year; his trusted lieutenant Davos; and Melisandre, priestess of "the Lord of Light," who suggests this will not only be a season of many kings, but many gods, and that hers has given her some power. (I'm guessing she didn't just survive the poisoning attempt because she spent the last few years building up an immunity to iocane powder.) The Stannis scenes come closest to having the feel of early season 1, simply because there's so much backstory to fill in, but the casting of Stephen Dillane, Liam Cunningham and Carice Van Houten does much of the heavy lifting. They may not be as well-known to us as, say, Sean Bean was as Ned, but they very quickly convey the relevant personality traits and attitudes towards one another.
And as Stannis prepares to mount his challenge to the Iron Throne, King of the North Robb continues to enjoy his success against the Lannister army, and even the wildlings apparently begin forming around a new king, "The North Remembers" presents us with many discussions of power, how to get it, maintain it, and wield it.
We see in the beginning that Joffrey takes tremendous pleasure in having the power of life and death over anyone he chooses, where Maester Luwin is busy teaching Bran that part of being a ruler means listening to the complaints of people you don't particularly want to listen to. Commander Mormont warns Jon Snow that a potential leader first has to learn how to follow. Littlefinger tries to school Cersei on his belief that knowledge is power, and in one quick, almost casually menacing move, she reminds our self-made man that, no, "Power is power." Cersei still has some power over her disgusting son — enough to survive slapping him in full sight of the construction workers in the royal throne room — but even her power is inferior to his.
And in the most horrible display of power of all, we close the episode with a massacre of most of the bastard offspring of the late King Robert, many of them babies being killed barely off-camera. These are still more potential challengers to the throne that Joffrey and Cersei don't need. (And Stannis' letter sends all these kids to their doom, not that I imagine he cares.) But the City Watch don't get them all, because the blacksmith's apprentice Gendry is already out of the city, traveling to Castle Black with a bunch of fellow Night's Watch recruits, plus one disguised princess named Arya who poses her own huge threat to the Lannister family.
This combination of Benioff, Weiss and Taylor was responsible for the riveting finale two episodes of last season, and their storytelling feels more confident than ever at the start of this new batch. A great beginning. Funny in spots, scary in others, never blinking away from the cruelty of this world and this war.
Some other thoughts:
* My biggest complaint about the premiere, by far: Hodor appears, but does not speak. #GameOfThronesFail Seriously. I've got a fever, and the only prescription is more "Hodor!" Give the people what they want, Benioff and Weiss. Yeesh! Or, like the man himself would say, "Hodor!"
* As I noted in my advance review, I started to finally see what the big — and I do mean big — deal is with the direwolves with the scene where Robb sends his pet in to intimidate Jaime Lannister. I don't know that the CGI was perfect, but it more than adequately conveyed the sense of scale these creatures are starting to operate on, and why they're special.
* Sign you're a "Game of Thrones" nerd, even if you haven't read the books: you get irrationally excited whenever the opening credits add a new locale: in this case, Stannis' island digs at Dragonstone. Very cool.
* Sansa has adapted surprisingly well to her awful new circumstances, finding ways to parry Joffrey's anger and spare the life of the drunken knight. Clever girl.
Speaking of me not having read the books, time for the requisite spoiler warning. Once again, let me remind you that we are here to discuss the show AS A TV SHOW, and not just as an endless series of compare/contrasts with the books. If you want to bring up events from the books that have already been depicted on the show, that's fine to a degree, but anything - plot, backstory, motivation, what have you - that has yet to be revealed on the show itself is absolutely off-limits. (The motivation one turned out to be the hardest one for people to resist last season, as it turns out. If they don't say it, or it's not clear from their actions, I don't want any psychoanalysis that's only possible if you've read their internal monologue in "A Clash of Kings.") Any comment containing anything I find even remotely questionable will be deleted. Period.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com